Armenians in Egypt
are a community with a long history. They are a minority with their own language, schools, churches, and social institutions. The number of Armenians in Egypt is decreasing due to migrations to other countries and a return migration to Armenia
. They number about 6000 concentrated in Cairo
, the two largest Egyptian cities.
Armenian migration to Egypt started in the beginning of the 19th century. Historians trace the migration of Armenians to Egypt to antiquity (during the third dynasty), with a notable increase under Byzantine rule.
Before the Armenian Genocide: Voluntary Migration
Their presence in Egypt is well documented, particularly during and after the Muslim conquest
, in which Armenian converts to Islam
participated. Wardan (Vartan) El-Roumi (the Roum were the Christians of Anatolia) established a market in Fustat
known as the Vartan Market. During the Abbasid era, the courage of the Armenian Amir Ali Ibn Yehia, "[who was] versed in the science of war," is praised by the mediaeval Islamic historian Ibn Taghribirdi.
This was a prosperous period for the Armenians in Egypt, when they enjoyed commercial, cultural and religious freedom. Their numbers increased considerably as more migrants arrived from Syria
, fleeing the advance of the Seljuks
westward during the second half of the 10th century.
Thousands of young Armenians, captured during invasions of the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia, which took place between 1266 and 1375, were brought to Egypt as mamluks
or slave-soldiers. They were employed in agriculture and as craftsmen. The youngest were educated in army camps following the Mameluke system, and later employed in the army and the palace.
At the beginning of the 14th century, a schism occurred in the Armenian church, which caused Patriarch Sargis of Jerusalem to request and obtain a firman from the Sultan Al-Malik Al-Nasir. This brought the Armenians within the Mamluk realm under the jurisdiction of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The schismatic Armenians who came to Egypt were given permission to practice their religion freely. Their patriarch's authority over the Armenian community's private and public affairs was decisive. The churches and those who served them were supported by the generosity of the faithful and the revenues deriving from charitable foundations.
Mohamed Ali period
The reign of Mohamed Ali (1805 – 1849) witnessed strong migration streams of Armenians to Egypt. Mohamed Ali hired many Armenians to help his government at that time. The era of Mohamed Ali witnessed building Armenian churches in Egypt; one for the Armenian Orthodox and another one for the Armenian Catholics. Boghos Youssufian (1768-1844) was an Armenian banker and businessman who in 1819 was in charge of the Diwan Al-Tijara (bureau of commerce) besides overseeing other financial affairs for Mohamed Ali. In 1876 the Armenian Nubar Nubarian (1825-1899) the first Prime Minister in modern Egypt. The total number of Armenians in Egypt the 1917 was 12,854 inhabitants.
After the Armenian Genocide: Forced Migration
A landmark of the Armenian migration is the “Armenian Genocide” which started in 24 April 1915. The Armenian communities in Egypt received a large percentage of the refugees and survivors of the massacres and genocide. They increased the numbers of the Armenians in Egypt to reach its peak in 1927 census data where their total number was 17,188 inhabitants most of whom were concentrated in Cairo and Alexandria (Al-Imam, 1999 and 2003). However, Armenians in Egypt managed to cope with their new lives in Egypt to the extent that Egypt, with its strong Armenian community, was the guiding head of the Armenians in the Arab world until the midtwentieth century. After the 1952 Nasser’s revolution and the socialist tendency of this revolution and given the fact that most of the Egyptian Armenians at that time were working in the private sector as self-employers in most cases, a reverse migration stream was observed among them where they started to migrate to the West, mainly to Europe, the United States, and Australia.
Engagement Of Egyptian Armenians Into Various Industries
Armenians in Egypt contributed to the development of many industries including ship building, textile production with spinning and weaving, carpentry and blacksmithing, stone masonry, shoemaking, jewelry, agriculture, and tobacco production.
Egypt’s largest tobacco factory was founded by the Matossian brothers of Tokat. Some 70,000 Armenians worked at the Matossian Tobacco factories. Between 1895-1896, 90% of Egypt’s cigarette production bore the trademark of Armenian owned factories. In the first quarter of the 20th century, the Armenian tobacco industry expanded to such an extent that it dominated the markets of Egypt and Sudan, becoming the chief supplier of Ethiopia’s capital, Adis-Ababa, and other cities. Another area of industry dominated by the Armenians was shoemaking famous for its state-of-the-art workmanship and designs. Krikor Papazian was the shoemaker serving the royal family and elite circles. The Sukiassian Company specialized in tanning, leather treatment and shoe manufacturing for the wholesale market.
Tailoring and shirt-making were also a common occupation among Armenians. Muhammed Ali’s tailor was Hadji Garabed. During the reign of King Fuad I, Arsen Sarafian served as the palace tailor.
PUBLISHING AND PRINTING
The Egyptian Armenian community established printing presses in Cairo and Alexandria, publishing newspapers, periodicals, literary, artistic, and specialized works, as well as textbooks, stimulating its cultural life to new heights. In Cairo, Sarkis Tarpinian founded Ararat Press in 1895, and Marie Beylerian started Ardemis Publishing House and a women’s journal of the same name in 1902. The publisher Pakraduni and then Yervant messerlian operated Vosguedar or Golden Letter press in 1914. The Nubar Printing Press, a family enterprise founded at the turn of the century, and still operates up till today. In Alexandria, K. Nazaretian established the Nazaretian Press in 1899, S. Tufenguian started Petag or Beehive House, in 1903, and the poet Vahan Tekeyan formed Tekeyan and Company Publishers in 1905.
In the 17th century, Armenians in India held the monopoly of the indigo trade. In the 19th century, the Armenians of India grew the best indigo plants and were the principal merchants of its particular dye in the state of Bihar. In 1824 Boghos Bey Yusufian, Egypt’s Minister of Commerce, brought into the country 40 Armenian families with indigo producing skills to teach Egyptians. In less than two years, the indigo due became the most important Egyptian export.
In 1824 Armenians from Izmir expanded the cultivation of the opium poppy. In 1883 the annual yield ensured one million French Francs for Egypt. However, after 1845, the export of opium was no longer lucrative.
Another profitable development was the cultivation and large scale export of the mandarin, a fruit introduced by Yusuf al-Armani. Yusuf Effendi al-Armani, bought and brought with him mandarin saplings from the Island of Malta, and planted it in Muhammed Ali’s orchard. The fruit became popular and its production was so lucrative that it was named Yusuf Effendi after the enterprising Armenian who introduced it.
Other Armenians who gave impetus to Egyptian trade were the money lenders. One of them is Mahdesi Yeghiazar Amira Bedrossyan, a native of Agin who became Muhammad Ali’s business consultant and the overseer of his personal accounts. After his death, his nephews were brought from Agin, based on the Wali’s request, and they initiated money lending and commercial enterprises in Musqi, and later were granted the right to develop the salt mines of Matariyya. After 1837, when the Balta Liman Treaty gave foreigners unlimited rights to conduct business in Egypt, money lending became irrelevant.
In 1816, Boghos Bey Yusufian was instrumental in establishing Egypt’s first school at the Citadel for the sons of the ruling family and high-ranking officials. Consequently, a number of the citadel graduates were Armenians.
In 1834, Artin Cherakian, who had studied civil administration, organized the School of Engineering, or Madrasat al-Handasah, at Bulaq, with the help of Yusuf Bey Hekekian, who had studied engineering in England. In September of the same year, he started the Bookkeeping and Accounting School, or Madrasat al-Idara. In 1835, he joined with Sdepan Demirdjian, who had studied diplomacy, in organizing the School of Civil Administration and Translation at the Citadel. In his turn, Yusuf Hekekian organized the School of Mines, which later became a division of the School of Engineering.
Ya’cub Artin Pasha, Egypt’s Education Minister and son of Artin Bey Cherakian, inaugurated Egypt’s first school for girls in 1873. Armenians also took the initiative of opening Egypt’s first kindergarten in 1890.
In 1937, upon the request of the Armenian Catholic Patriarchate, three Armenian Catholic Sisters came to Egypt to inaugurate a preparatory school for the Armenian girls in Cairo. The school was limited to the Armenian girls until 1967, however, due to bad financial circumstances, the school later opened its doors to accept female students from all races.
After the 1952 Revolution
A reverse migration, not to the origin but to the West was observed among Armenian Egyptians starting from 1956 after the introduction of “what is called the “Socialist Laws” and the nationalization of many basic economic firms under the Nasser regime.
Since Armenian Egyptian at that time were working in the private sector and monopolizing basic professions and trade markets, the socialist laws affected them more than those who work in the governmental sector or in Agriculture. Many migrants realized – mistakenly or correctly – that they are threatened by these new tendency and many left the country and migrated to the West. Since 1956 the total number of Armenian Egyptians is decreasing. Accurate figures of how many left and how many are still there are not available since questions on ethnicity were not included in the censuses after the 1952 revolution.
Geography of Armenian population
Around 1950, more than 50 percent of Armenians were concentrated in the crowded zones in the heart of the capital near their churches, schools, clubs, and markets. The zones of Bein El-sourain and Darb El-Guenena were considered Armenian zones in the first half of the twentieth century. In the second half of the twentieth century, Armenians started to move to reside in Cairo suburbs such as Heliopolis, Nouzha, Maadi, and Helwan. Nowadays, Heliopolis is considered the recent base of Armenians in Cairo.
Egyptian Armenians Today
Most Egyptian Armenians today, who are permanent residents of Egypt, were born in Egypt and are Egyptian citizens. Armenia
to them are folkloric stories and cultural practices that they each generation hands them to the successor generation. Armenian Egyptians are full Egyptians with an extra cultural layer. A small community numbered around 6,000(before 1952 there were around 60,000 Armenians in Egypt), living in Cairo and Alexandria.
Today structures such as clubs, schools, and sports facilities reinforce communications among Armenian Egyptians and revive the heritage of their forefathers. In spite of these efforts, many Armenian Egyptians of the youngest generation (and who are mostly the result of marriages between the Armenian community and other Egyptians - whether Christians or Muslims) don't speak the Armenian language, or go to Armenian schools and are not in touch with their heritage or community. The Armenian Church and the apolitical structure of the Armenian community have a very important role in unifying Armenians in Egypt. Unlike Armenian minorities in Syria and Lebanon, Armenian Egyptians stay out of local politics.
The Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Egypt, which is under the jurisdiction of Holy Etchmiadzin, is the primary guardian of community assets such as endowments, real estate in the form of agricultural land and other property bequeathed by generations of philanthropists.
Egyptian Armenians work in the private sector, as successful businessmen, skilled handicraftsmen (especially as jewelers), and dentists. Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, Armenians came/fled to Egypt with a range of skills in the field of business, commerce, and finance. In addition they came to Egypt mastering foreign languages. Nowadays, Armenians who master foreign languages work in offices and branches of international organizations as well as foreign embassies in Cairo.
The Armenian community operates two benevolent and one cultural associations, the Armenian Red Cross Association, the Armenian General Benevolent Union and the Houssaper Cultural Association. The community has four social clubs in Cairo and two in Alexandria, in addition to three sporting clubs in the capital and two in Alexandria. There is one home for the elderly, and many activities for young people, including a dance troupe, Zankezour, a choir, Zevartnots, and a children's choir, Dzaghgasdan.
Egyptian Armenians are very rarely involved in present-day politics, unlike the Armenian minorities in Lebanon
. However, many are employed in different political and apolitical Egyptian institutions. The Armenian Church and the apolitical structure of the institutions in the Egyptian Armenian community have a very important role in unifying the Armenians in Egypt.
Today, in Egypt, there are two daily papers and one weekly publication, all affiliated to Armenian political parties.
- Housaper, a daily belonging to the Tashnag Party, was founded in 1913;
- Arev, a daily, put out by the Ramgavar Party, was founded in 1915
- Tchahagir, a weekly founded in 1948 belonging to the Hentchag Party.
Schools and Institutions
The first Armenian school in Egypt, the Yeghiazarian Religious School, was established in 1828 at Bein Al-Sourein. In 1854, the school was moved to Darb Al-Geneina and the name was changed to Khorenian, after the Armenian historian Movses Khorenatsi. In 1904, Nubar Pasha
, an Armenian Legend, moved the Khorenian School to Boulaq. In 1907, he founded the Kalousdian Armenian School
and kindergarten. Today, only one building and a playground remain on Galaa Street (downtown Cairo). The second Armenian school in Egypt was founded in 1890 by Boghos Youssefian in Alexandria. The newest Armenian school is Nubarian in Heliopolis. This school was founded in 1925 with a donation from Boghos Nubar.
The three Armenian schools in Egypt eventually integrate a K-12 program. Armenian 6 schools in Egypt are partially supported by the Prelacy of the Armenian Church in Egypt. Armenian education is very important in maintaining Armenian language among the Armenian community in Egypt. In Addition, Armenian language is the only language that Armenians use within their families and communities.
The three Armenian schools in Egypt eventually integrated a secondary education programme; students who have graduated can immediately enter the Egyptian university system, after passing the official Thanawiya 'Amma (High School) exams.
The Armenian Church
Armenian Egyptians are divided into Armenian Apostolic (known also as Orthodox or at times Gregorian) belinging to the Armenian Apostolic Church
and Armenian Catholic communities belonging to the Armenian Catholic Church
. There are also some Egyptian Armenians who are members of Armenian Evangelical churches.
There are five main Armenian churches in Egypt, two in Alexandria and three in Cairo.
Armenian Orthodox community comprise the majority of Armenian Egyptians.
The Armenian Apostolic churches include:
- Paul and Peter Armenian Apostolic Church (Alexandria)
- St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Apostolic Church (Sourp Krikor Lousavoritch Armenian Apostolic Church)(in Cairo).
The Prelacy of the Armenian Church in Egypt, which is under the jurisdiction of See of Holy Echmiadzin, is the primary guardian of community assets such as endowments, real estate in the form of agricultural land and other property bequeathed by generations of philanthropists.
The Armenian Catholic community has two churches:
- Armenian Catholic Patriarchate and the Church of the Assumption (Cairo)
- Armenian Catholic Patriarchate (in Alexandria)
- St. Therese Armenian Catholic Church (Heliopolis, Cairo)
List of famous Armenians in Egypt
From Abbasid Era in the 7th c. to the Ottoman Era of early 19th c.
Among the most prominent Armenians in Egypt between the Abbasid Era in the 7th c. to the Ottoman Era of early 19th c. were:
- Vartan the Standard Bearer, or Wardan al-Rumi al-Armani, who saved the life of Amr Ibn al-‘As, the commander of the Arab army at the battle of Alexandria in 641.
- Al-Amir Ali Ibn Yahya Abu’l Hassan al-Armani – the governor of Egypt in 841 and 849, appointed by the Abbasid Caliph, the spiritual and political guide and leader of Muslims at Baghdad.
- Ahmed Ibn Tulun - the new prefect who in 876 was commissioned by Ibn Khatib Al-Ferghani to construct his mosque in his garrison tow Al-Qata’i.
- Ibn Khatib Al-Ferghani - the master builder of Armenian ancestry who rebuilt the Nilometer on the southern tip of Rawda Island to measure the rise of the water level at the annual inundation of the Nile, a critical factor for the prosperity of Egypt.
- Badr al-Gamali - a manumitted slave of Armenian descent was called by Caliph al-Muntasir in 1073 to assist him during the Fatimid period when Egypt was weakened by inner strife and ravaged by drought, famine and epidemics. Badr’s army, composed of mainly Armenian soldiers, is believed to have been formed after the fall of the Bagratuni capital, Ani (1066) when waves of Armenian refugees sought shelter in other countries. Badr al-Gamali was the first military man to become the Vezir (minister) of the Sword and the Pen, thus setting the trend for a century of mostly Armenian Vezirs with the same monopoly of civilian and military powers. At the height of their power, the Armenian Vezir could count on the personal loyalty of more than 20,000 men.
- Al-Afdal – the son of Badr al-Gamali constructed the Palace of Vezirate, or Dar al Wizarra, besides creating two public parks with exotic gardens, and a recreation area with a man-made lake called Birket al Arman, or Armenian Lake.
- Three brothers – all architects and masons skilled in cutting and dressing stones, who constructed the three monumental gates of Cairo: Bab al-Nasr and Bab al-Futuh in 1087 and Bab Zuwayla in 1092. The gates with their flanking towers still stand today. The ramparts and gates, which have a certain similarity to the fortifications of the Bagratuni Capital Ani, are regarded as masterpieces of military architecture by international standards.
- Bahram al-Armani – who, after restoring order and peace in the country at the request of Caliph al-Hafiz, was appointed by the latter as the Vezir in 1135.
- Baha al-Din Karakush - a eunuch and a Mamluk of the Kurdish general Shirkuh who in 1176 constructed a fortress, the Citadel, on the southeastern ridge of the Muqattam Hills and enclosed the new and old capitals, Cairo and Fustat, within a wall protected by the Citadel. Until the middle of the 19th century, the Citadel built by Karakush served as the seat of government fulfilling dual military and political functions.
- Shagarat Al-Durr (or Tree of Pearls) - a female slave who dazzled everyone with her spectacular display of gold and precious stone ornaments. She was sent to Egypt by the Abbasid Caliph al-Musta’sim as a gift to Sultan Salih Nagm al-Din Ayyub and became his favorite wife during his aging years. This strong-willed former slave wielded absolute power over Egypt during the transition period to Mamluk rule. She is one of the rare women in Islamic history who have ascended the throne and made a difference in the political and cultural spheres.
- Sinan Pasha - the Ottoman Empire’s chief architect of Armenian descent, who constructed the historic Mosque of Bulaq, as well as Cairo’s grain market, and Bulaq’s public bathroom (Hammam).
- Amir Suleyman Bey al-Armani - held the position of Governor of Munnifeya and Gharbiyya provinces in 1690 and was so wealthy that he had Mamluks at his service.
- Ali al-Armani and Ali Bey al-Armani Abul Azab - served as regional commanders.
- Mustafa Jabarti - a Mamluk of Armenian descent from Tbilsi was a deputy of the agha or chief of ojak, and amassed a great fortune. He bought properties in the Armenian populated al-Zuwayla quarter and made donations to Armenians through his sister. He also built a hospice on the top floor of the quarter’s St. Sarkis Church, to shelter Armenian immigrants, pilgrims and migrant workers, in need of temporary lodgings.
- Muhammad Kehia al-Armani – an incorruptible leader who in 1798 was sent to negotiate with Napoleon Bonaparte in Alexandria to spare the population of Cairo. Napoleon was so impressed by the conciliatory tone, the political astuteness, and the diplomatic skill of the Mamluk of Armenian descent that he later appointed him the Head of Cairo’s Political Affairs Administration.
- Rustam (or Petros) - a native of Karabakh was brought to Egypt as a slave soldier. He accompanied Napoleon to France as his bodyguard, fought with the French army at the famous battle of Austerlitz, and then took part in the conquest of Spain.
- Apraham Karakehia - an eminent money changer was asked for financial help by Mohammed Ali. The Armenian money changer supported Muhammed Ali’s projects and plans and was afterwards appointed the financial representative of the Albanian General. Karakehia would become Egypt’s money changer, with the honorary title of Misser Sarrafi. That position and title would belong to the Karakehia family for generations to come.
- Mahdesi Yeghiazar Amira Bedrossian – another money changer from Agin who was named the Wali’s, or Governor’s, tax collector and special counselor. The Armenian money lender not only regulated the financial services and the taxation system but also initiated safeguards against illegal land seizures. At “various times, Armenian money lenders held the sole rights of exploiting the Cairo bathhouses, the salt mines of Matariya and the fish market of Damietta.” The influence of the Armenian money lenders increased even more during the 1830s, when due to the Russo-Turkish war and open persecution of Armenians, many merchants and financiers settles in Egypt and even succeeded in launching Egypt’s first bank, which operated from 1837 to 1841.
- Yuhanna al-Armani - artist and Coptic icon painter who lived and worked in Cairo
Contributors to the modern Egyptian State
Armenians have historically contributed prominently to the Egyptian public life, be it in politics, economics, business and academic circles as well as in all facets of the arts.
Suffice to mention that Nubar Pasha, a prominent politician became the First Prime Minister of Egypt. Alexander Saroukhan is considered one of the prominent caricaturists who set the standards for the art of caricature in the Arab World.
Egyptian Armenians in the Diaspora
Because of a rise of nationalism and pan-Arabism joined with confiscation of civil rights and economic freedoms, many Egyptians of Armenian descent decided in the late 1950s and during the 1960s to leave the country in many thousands to Europe and the Americas (United States, Canada, Latin America) and Australia. This greatly reduced the number of the Egyptian Armenian community in Egypt.
However the migrating Egyptian Armenians remained attached to their homeland Egypt and kept the Egyptian Armenian traditions and established their own associations in the New Diaspora away from their country Egypt. They also actively contributed to the institutions still working in Egypt (churches, schools, clubs, cultural activities etc). We can mention for example the Association of Armenians from Egypt in Montreal, Canada and many others in the United States.